Katarína K. Cvečková
“Performing arts in the pandemic time”
It has been several long months since the world was locked down by pandemic of the disease Covid-19. All social segments have been paralyzed, with no exception of culture and art. Since the spring 2020, every new wave of coronavirus spread has brought new conditions for our everyday life, new restrictions, obstacles, but also re-evaluations, reflections or states of anxiety and helplessness. From the initial stop, purification from the sediments of a fast time and also a certain artistic pressure, I gradually went into a stage of more serious reflection on my own profession – over the purpose of theater critique. In connection with this, I naturally began to have questions about the essence of theater, about the function, meaning and form of performing arts at a time when direct contact between the actor and the spectator is not possible.
The theater and dance scene thus involuntarily found itself in a kind of limba. After months of waiting, it was finally allowed to revive the work and its live presentation, at least in a limited mode, but even this phase was temporary … and that time was much shorter than we would have expected or wished. Nevertheless, the representatives of the art scene have not given up and continue to try to carry out their mission, to create, to reflect on what is happening around us, to stay in touch with the audience. However, what are the current possibilities for the implementation and presentation of such activities?
The first clear answer seems to be online space. A place where all “living” life has moved temporarily. But isn’t it just a version of limba, a kind of makeshift waiting room? In that case, I could decide whether to enter it or rather stay until real live interaction is available. But what if these are the new “post-post-post …” forms, another performative turn, a developing phenomenon that reflects the state of nowadays, another stage in the development of art? Then, indeed, it is my duty to reflect on it, to analyze, to ask questions and to look for answers. The first question and I believe that the most important one of them, however, is whether we can really still call online premieres, live streams and “works” existing only in the virtual environment as theater. After all, isn’t one of the important conditions missing here – liveliness? (The German theorist Erika Fischer-Lichte considers liveness to be a specific feature of the theater, which is the unconditional physical presence of actors and spectators and their mutual interaction during the performance.)
As the Czech theorist Jindřich Chalupecký also wrote, “the development of art seems logical ex post”. It is not possible to get ahead of “our time” and write about it today. However, this does not mean that we should resign to reflection and controversy, or that we can no longer bring reflections, alternatives and perspectives. I therefore decided to open an indirect art-theoretical discussion on several issues related to performing arts and art critique in the pandemic period and on the vision of living art in the expected post-pandemic period. Both representatives of the creation and reflection answered my series of questions: Michaela Pašteková, Sláva Daubnerová, Júlia Rázusová, Dominika Široká, Michal Ditte, Marek Godovič, Jaro Viňarský and Milo Juráni. Thus a database of different opinions is created, which can be inspiring, which can be debated or re-evaluated. Although it may be much later when the “ex post corona” phase occurs.
What is the meaning of performing arts in a persistent pandemic time? What are the alternatives for its functioning, for creation and presentation? Is it really just an online realm – and what about it? Are online premieres relevant – and under what conditions?
Michaela Pašteková (esthetician and art journalist):
And what exactly is “live art” today? Is it an art which I can see with my own eyes or an art that still exists despite the conditions and can be “heard”, no matter where or how it is presented? I understand that the question probably leads to the traditional live interaction of spectators and actors, but at the moment it seems that even in the field of theater or dance we will have to stop thinking in dichotomy of online and offline and perceive them as spaces that will be naturally transmissive and not alternative. Living bodies will not disappear, we will still long for them in a sense, we will just get used to new and other types of spectator experiences that will not compete with each other.
Sláva Daubnerová (director and performer):
The performing arts are based on direct contact with the viewer and on the strength of the present moment of this encounter and exchange. As direct contact with the viewer is currently impossible, I don’t really see any alternative other than online space and “live” broadcasts. So meeting with the viewer at the same time, but not space. Are online premieres relevant? If I didn’t have the opportunity to premiere Masterpiece in front of people (for which I am grateful in return), I would definitely go out online. But my situation was specific, because I ended one stage and I didn’t plan to perform for another two years … We didn’t choose this situation as creators and at some stage you already need to “release the work”, otherwise it could happen, that in the end nothing will be left of it. So in this respect, I would be more benevolent, and probably everyone who even premieres through online believes that they will have the opportunity to perform in front of people in the near future. For example, I appreciated being able to watch the premiere of Marina Abramovic’s opera Seven Deaths of Maria Callas, which she performed without an audience. So I think this is a time for development rather than a presentation. It’s a state of war that won’t end this season. It was even much worse. And the theater survived.
Júlia Rázusová (theater director):
I left 2020 with a New Year´s card that had a picture of shredded page of directorial book and the following words: Theater carries the phenomenon of the scene “here and now”, at a given moment. The theatrical performance is therefore unique, unrepeatable. The meeting of the performer and the spectator at a given moment is some kind of an absolute meeting. Immediately after which, we as theater creators, encountered the limitations of living art and had to re-evaluate the meaning and form of our existence.
My very initial reaction to the regulations of restrictions on living art was to return to the study of theoretical materials, to deepen inspiration sources, to find the missing time for preparation, to create new textual materials. We took full advantage of the opportunity to play live with a limited number of spectators – they were intimate but full-fledged reruns. The next phase was the possibility of a rehearsal without the possibility of performing, we went for it. Its small advantages: free terms of actors and greater concentration on the focused project. Online performing was eligible only in the case of the fulfillment of a grant commitment, not as a relevant presentation option. With understanding and support, I accepted all the festivals and online streams from the theaters, which coped with the existential question during the pandemic. I admire creators who were able to take advantage of the restrictions for finding and creating new forms. Within the online sphere, I was approached by newly created original projects based on the situation – a pandemic sitcom of the Ostrava theater Peace, online discussions of creators, lectures, lessons, the use of isolation as a theme, outdoor performing, etc.
During the festival in Warsaw, I was asked to make our performance available online with 15 spectators in the performing space. I understood the organizers and gave them permission. I myself became a viewer of the live stream of our work. The stream was high quality, full of creative cameraman’s cuts, but … The best example is the moment when the actor is holding open scissors over a moving magnetophon tape. The whole theatrical mise-en-scène was edited as a minute shot of a detail of the actor’s hand with scissors in tension. A new work was created. Also when creating a recording of the production Borodáč or Three Sisters at the State Theater in Košice, I perceived the editing of the shots and the spatial distribution of the cameramen as a determining interpretive factor. The cut worked as a spectator. It chose the angles, the details, the figures, which was watching.
Dominika Široká (theatrologist and dramaturg):
Performing arts in pandemic times – with outputs from distant balconies or via a computer screen – is an organic, literarlly utopian response to the time when it is risky to share a common space and the time which, on the outside, is not compatible with the theater. Not only it is a demonstration of the ingenuity, viability and creativity of the art scene (That´s our job!), but it is a strong gesture of solidarity that has the ability to lift the spirit and bring catharsis to the community in difficult times. Yes, even if the live concert between the apartment blocks does not have optimal acoustics and even if the image from the live theatrical broadcast occasionally freezes. What is optimal nowadays!
If in times of collapsing hospitals and the necessary social distance, creators decide to withdraw for a time, or many of them have to withraw due to the lack of resources, they, however, should not be afraid that they will have to fight again for their already fragile position and vindicate their own relevance. On the contrary, they already urgently need absolute state support and social support.
Michal Ditte (playwright):
In fact, I don’t see much sense in presenting live contemporary art in the online space. I don’t know the statistics, but with regard to theater, I don’t think it’s either profitable or competitive with other commercial media platforms. Nevertheless, I do not completely deny the possibility of premiering new works online. Firstly, because the successful drawing of the provided resources from art funds depends on it, and at the same time the creators have the opportunity to obtain a recording of the production for the needs of festivals, which I guess will take place sometime in the future. I have no idea how theatrical critique can handle this regarding the reflections of the art work. Still, it’s a different medium.
Marek Godovič (theater critic, playwright and dramaturg):
Finding a sense of creation in a time of pandemic can be something unimaginable and distant, especially for theatergoers and dancers, who need a live response from a live viewer to present their works. The need to be in contact with the viewer is far from enough. Perhaps in the initial period of the pandemic, it was something exceptional to reach the viewers by streaming productions from the archive, in order not to be forgotten. But as we could see with our own eyes, that was not enough. It was necessary to reflect on the time for the theater by almost anti-theater means, but at the same time to adapt them to something more immediate, “something more alive”. During the pandemic, we had the opportunity to get to know each other, to look not only behind the scenes, but also behind the scenes of our thinking. We perceive how others work and how we work, we share more. Many ensembles, theaters, performers present online premieres not only as a necessity to fulfill the grant support, but they also introduce more or less untraditional procedures and thus create more authentic works. In the past it would be a manifestation of innovation, today it is a specific phenomenon brought about by pandemics and existence in it.
Jaro Viňarský (choreographer and dancer):
Art is an area that develops, reflects and supports the natural human need to create and produce. Artists care about their survival and the survival of art, its legitimate right for the full integration into social and political life precisely because they are essentially aware of this value and the dimension of the healthy development of man and society. Living art, from this point of view, can still be just as alive in such an extreme situation as we find ourselves in.
So what are our options? Online premieres, live and non-live broadcasts of performances are not the best or only solution and I think they are basically non-functional. It is multiplying the already excessive amount, I will call it advertising audio-visual culture, in the area from which various streaming services benefit the most, especially with film content. If, after five minutes of watching a movie that doesn’t interest you, you simply switch to another one, it won’t hurt the actors in it, they’re probably doing something else. It is similar in the case of watching an existing recording of a performance that took place live, with the small difference – that you can say, “Oh, I would like to watch it live.” That liveliness will be lacking, even if the record is technically well processed. This condition cannot be fulfilled even in the case of live streaming of the performance, as even this now takes place without the direct presence of the viewer. Related to this are the requirements for a completely different type of attention and participation of the viewer. The absence of liveliness reaches the level of physically perceived (however subconsciously) deprivation. I have no doubt that for many it can be a painful experience if we realize the full weight of the real significance of the live art experience. I don’t suggest that we shouldn´t do it. It is necessary to try, experiment, check as many possibilities as possible to be alive in virtual space, try to apply to it what already proves to work outside of it, but also to be aware of its limits and possible considerable wiles, which if we ignore, take us to the unwanted track.
If we agree with this sketched view, which touches only a very small part of the outlines of this complex issue, we can use the availability of the online sphere to support those aspects of performing arts that are independent of mobility and live physical encounters. To awaken in people particularly that subdued nature to create and think. Draw their attention to the fact that they do it, even though they may not be aware of it. Do not leave them to passive watching of records, but activate them. I am inclined to such solutions that lead to co-creation, where the artist is only a kind of mediator. The aim should be to create art together with those who can not only consume it, but be an equal part of it. I believe that only in this way can art get back into people’s attention and become an integral part of social life. Fortunately, it is already possible to observe several nascent positive changes that can lead to a real – and primarily conscious – transformation of the view of art and its subsequent application in practice.
Milo Juráni (theatrologist and theater critic):
From my point of view, the meaning of performing arts does not change. This meaning was already unclear, or rather complex and provoking discussions and reflection before the pandemic period. I am thinking now of the whole range of problems that are global in nature, and the related roles of art in solving them. However, as living art changed from available and open to inaccessible and forbidden, its political function declined and its potential value increased. At the very least, the desire to be able to participate in it again as a viewer has increased, either because of a live experience or because it is a collective event.
There are several alternatives – at least in German space. In Bochum, for example, there is a “quickgrant” that allows artists to prepare, or more precisely present their art in public spaces (directly between houses, respecting current regulations). In the winter months, of course, it is more difficult. At FFT Düsseldorf, the Antje Pfundtner in Gesellschaft group created the Walk and Talk format. One artist and one spectator walk together through the city and talk about the future of live art. Another possibility is the form of applied “front” theater, oriented to workers who are in permanent service (medics, vendors, etc.). Of course, even here, strict restrictions apply. In addition, there are workshops, but again only online and very limited.
However, in addition to online space and other existing alternatives, other potentially inanimate forms should not be forgotten. Both public and private television channels have opportunities, resources, and even some power over the media space, so they could offer some “times” to performative arts. Not only to present recordings from premieres, but also from ongoing festivals, or to offer the audience through the screen a different type of experience than they are used to (not vivid theatre meetings but live broadcasted forms that until now has been just privilege of galas or reality shows such as Czechoslovakia has talent). Theaters also experiment with radio formats.
I find online premieres relevant because … what else can be done. Ideally, if creators have thought about how they will stream their work to the world. For example, if they choose to work consciously with the fact that their premiere will be broadcast online or with the context that the pandemic brings. The new challenge motivates performers to try new and different collaborations, for example with artists from digital technologies, but also from the other side of the world. The results can only be presented online, but they generate hybrid formats. I think that in this fight, however, the classic drama gets “a beating” from more performative forms. To be specific: I appreciate experiments with intermedia like Homecoming by machinaEX – a live-theater-game for being at home … It’s online, the authors are representatives of live art, but at the same time it’s an interactive and participatory performance and game in one. Maybe with that comes the neo-renaissance of dramaturgy.
I don´t consider adaptation to be necessity, in a tense situation it is more a matter of choice and possibility how to cope with a new circumstance. It is true that predicting the future is very tricky and it is not clear whether there will be any interest in online formats later or it will become the standard. It is also difficult to say to what extent live art will be able to be offline again. But whoever prepares now will seem to find in the future.
FISCHER-LICHTE, Erika. Estetika performativity (Translation: Markéta Polochová.) Mníšek pod Brdy: Na konári, 2011.
CHALUPECKÝ, Jindřich. Umění dnes. Prague: Nakladatelství československých výtvarných umělců, 1966.
KATARÍNA K. CVEČKOVÁ (1991)
A graduate of Theory and Criticism of Theater Arts at the Theater Faculty of the Academy of Performing Arts in Bratislava. She carries on reflections on theater and contemporary dance and regularly publishes in several media. She is the co-founder of the MLOKi platform and the current editor-in-chief of the online magazine mloki.sk. For five years she worked as a professional editor in the magazine kød – concretely on theater, which is published by the Theater Institute. She is also engaged in pedagogical activities – she regularly leads workshops on critical thinking and writing Write as they dance. As part of her doctoral studies at the Academy of Performing Arts (Theater Studies Department), she focused on current trends in the independent theater and dance scene in Slovakia, especially on the phenomenon of intermediality and the principles of the art of performance. In addition to art criticism, she has also recently worked as a theater and dance dramaturg and curator of theater (and other) festivals.